What is Zero Waste October?

By Beth Terry

Rebecca Newburn is a middle school science teacher in Marin County, California, who, with a group of elementary and middle school students, successfully lobbied the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District to adopt a resolution making October "Zero Waste Month."  And together with zero waste specialists Anastacia Nicole and Kathryn Kellogg of GoingZeroWaste, has created a program for cities and schools to participate in Zero Waste October.

Read through the challenge and choose a few things you might try out this year. Then, use it as a model to get your school or town active next year.

Why October?

Rebecca explained to me that October is a great month for families in the Northern Hemisphere to take on the zero waste challenge because the kids are back in school and October is right before Halloween and the winter holidays, a time that can often lead to increased waste. And THAT is a topic I’ve ranted about here and here and here and here! (We love Plastic-Free July, but it was started by folks in Australia during their winter season, a month when folks up North may be on summer vacation.)

Zero Waste October Website

Rebecca has created a Zero Waste Challenge website with all the resources you need to join in Zero Waste October.  I’ll highlight some of the elements here, but that is where you should go for ideas and resources for participating in Zero Waste October, including resources for teachers and schools to plan Zero Waste events throughout the month.

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Zero Waste October Proclamation

The group has provided a proclamation template that communities can use to proclaim October Zero Waste Month.  The template is a Google doc that you can download and edit to fit your circumstances.

Zero Waste 31-Day Challenge

Kathryn Kellogg has developed a 31-Day Zero Waste Challenge aimed at kids, but anyone can participate in it.  Here’s an example of the calendar:

You can read the details of each day’s challenge on her site or download a PDF copyof the 31-Day Zero Waste Challenge.

What the Schools are Doing

Rebecca emailed me some examples of some of the things the Larkspur-Corte Madera schools will be doing to give you some ideas:

  1. Every morning, the Zero Waste Challenge tip of the day (based on the 31-Day Challenge) will be read along with the rest of the school’s daily announcements. (Click the link for a Google doc of daily tips.)
  2. At The Cove Elementary, all students will be making reusable snack bags in the art and tinker classes, and a list of snack recipes will be provided. Families are also being encouraged to share their recipes. A school-wide recipe book of great snacks could be a project that comes out of this collection. Pairs of third graders will also be visiting each classroom to role play lunch options. One student will have a lunch packed with disposables and the other will have waste-free alternatives. They’ll sit down to “have lunch together” and strike up a conversation about the packaging and the one kid will model alternatives. They are also having a Zero Waste Assembly.
  3. The schools will be keeping track of how much lunch waste they generate on campus this year vs. last year.
  4. Depending on the grade level, kids will have different Zero Waste Challenges.

    a.  For K-3, the Zero Waste would be a monthlong collection of waste created in the classroom. Families may be encouraged to do the 31-day challenge at home, but younger kids would not be expected to carry waste back home to do a waste audit.

    b. 4th graders are involved in some larger school assessments of waste. Collecting waste at recess or lunch. Counting and/or weighing waste will be done. (This can be done as a whole school or individual class.)

    c.  5th graders will do the month-long challenge where they collect all the waste that they generate for the month and analyze it. A DIY project, such as making toothpaste or reusable bags will also be done. Getting parent volunteers helps.

  5. In Hall Middle School, all students will do the 31-day challenge. This is being done through all the science classes. Starting October 1 and going through to October 31st students will collect all their waste for the month, photo-document it, and write a reflection. This is the basic requirement. Students who would like a “B” would do this and make several changes to their habits and create 1-2 DIY products, such as homemade shampoo, for example. There is a list of Zero Waste DIY recipes for toothpaste, cleaning products, and deodorant on the student challenge page.  Kids who would like an “A” need to do all of those requirements and communicate what they learned to people outside their immediate family. Some ideas for an authentic audience could be a video about a DIY product they created, a blog post about favorite snack recipes, or a letter to a company sharing their concerns about/appreciation for their product.
  6. In addition to the 31-Day challenge, all of the kids at Hall Middle School will be making DIY toothpaste. They collected several hundred Altoid tins from Freecycle to store the toothpaste. If kids want essential oils, they can come back at lunch and do that part outside.
  7. The leadership classes are also getting involved. Some of the ideas they are considering doing this year include:

    ** Reusable utensils: Encourage students to bring in reusable utensils and cloth napkins. Maybe the first week of October kids in the hot lunch line show leadership students if they brought their own utensils or cloth napkins. Raffle tickets could be given to those students. Prizes could be some special treat that kids like, such as a week of “front of the lunch line” passes. After the first week of checking for utensils, there could be some spot/surprise checking a couple more days in the month to see if those who brought their utensils are still doing so. More raffle tickets could be issued.
    ** Zero Waste Snack: Set up a table during recess where kids can bring their Zero Waste Snacks. Kids could get a raffle ticket or it could be a photo opportunity where photos are taken of Zero Waste snacks and uploaded to Instagram and Twitter with some tips or recipes. #ZeroWasteChallenge
    ** Snack Sampling Idea: Get the PTA/PTO/student council to have a table one day with (nut-free) snacks. Kids can come and sample different treats. Recipes can be printed or emailed home to families.
    ** Videos:   Have students make videos about Zero Waste ideas (snacks/lunch/DIY products/etc.). This could be done in language arts or tech classes. These videos can be shared with parents through an online parent newsletter and shared with other classes.

Inspiring Women

I asked Rebecca and Kathryn to explain why the issue of waste and plastic is important to them and whether there was a “lightbulb” moment that spurred them to action, going beyond personal changes to working for change on a larger scale.  Here’s what they said.

Rebecca Newburn:  “I didn’t have a “lightbulb moment.” For years I have focused on creating my house as a model of sustainability and regenerative agriculture. I had reduced my plastic and consumption considerably. I didn’t go Zero Waste until last year when my 6th graders and I were piloting KQED’s  Engineering for Good: Plastic Solutions unit. I wanted my students to feel empowered after studying the plastic issue so I created the 31-day Zero Waste Challenge. It was a lot easier than I thought and quite liberating. At the end of the challenge, I was able to get rid of my trash cans in my house.

Kathryn Kellogg: “My “lightbulb” moment happened when I realized that all storm drains lead to the sea. I had been trying to cut plastic out around my food, and I was trying to avoid endocrine disruptors after a breast cancer scare. I connected all of the dots when I realized plastic isn’t just bad for our health, it’s bad for the planet’s health too. I committed to plastic-free, zero waste living wholeheartedly, and I haven’t looked back since. I started blogging to show other people how easy and fun zero waste living can be. Most importantly, I wanted people to know they don’t have to be perfect. Any steps taken to reduce the amount of plastic or trash you generate is awesome! “

I continue to be inspired by all the people I meet who are taking action in their schools, businesses, and communities. But don’t feel you have to do it all at once. Remember, change begins with a single step. You can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. That’s not just tautology. It’s actually a useful philosophy for life.

Beth Terry blogs at My Plastic Free Life and is the author of the book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse), a practical guide to ridding your life of plastic. Terry is a PPC founding advisor.